Credit: Joanna Demkiewicz.
(WOMENSENEWS)– Something occurred to me as I waited for my male Rwandan translator to stop slamming his fist against the brick wall of the women’s cooperative in Kigali, Rwanda, last summer.
I was far away.
I was in a foreign country, learning about a foreign experience — genocide — listening to a foreign language, witnessing a man’s reaction to a woman’s story of rape.
The most jarring was that last part: witnessing a man’s reaction to a woman’s story of rape.
It happened while I was visiting Women for Avenir, a women’s cooperative of genocide and rape survivors, some widowed from the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis. Some were also HIV – positive. Some were both widowed and HIV – positive.
I was 21 years old and traveling with five students from the University of Missouri and Béa Gallimore, a French professor and Rwandan. She had brought us to the place where she had lost her mother and four siblings in 1994 so we could learn how the country was navigating its grief.
I spent five days with the Avenir women as the counselor’s assistant and observed how the place offered post-genocide healing and empowerment.
The first day I spent with the women, I crouched on a stool and learned the communal art of making traditional African household talismans out of a clay-like substance. The process offers a way for each woman to connect to family members and memories lost in 1994 and before.
I had a male translator, Emmanuel, and without him, I could not understand the stories women told at Avenir gatherings. Sometimes, though, he was not allowed to accompany me to counseling sessions with the women. In those cases, I was left to decipher body language and intonation. I was left without direct translation.
In every case, the women at Avenir were raped by a man or by men. Sometimes a survivor didn’t want a man to hear how she suffered, how the rapist pinned her down, how he ripped her clothes, how he cut her stomach to check for a fetus, how he raped her and made her children watch, how he shoved the sharpened stick inside her vagina, how he abandoned her and left her to bleed, how he claimed his power and moved on to the next one.
A Weapon of War
The reasons for rape during the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis are both strategic and psychologically complex.
Rape was used as a weapon of the war to ethnically cleanse the country of Tutsi women who had the potential to bear children with Tutsi blood. Soldiers perpetrating genocidal violence – the Hutu soldiers – were exposed to hypersexual images of Tutsi women as “evil seductresses.” In one cartoon printed in the Hutu extremist magazine Kangura, two Tutsi temptresses kiss and coddle Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, head of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda in 1994, their painted fingers resting comfortably on his thighs. The caption suggests that Dallaire and his army have fallen into the trap of Tutsi femme fatales.
Rape doesn’t end with the assault. Women describe it as a recurring nightmare. So when the Avenir women who were infected with HIV meet and invite me, but not Emmanuel, I understand. I sit with them and mimic the counseling protocol: I embrace them and kiss them three times each, cheek-to-cheek; I slip off my sandals; I cluck and tsk-tsk-tsk after a woman has spoken, leaning forward and backward with her words, so expressive as she speaks. But I do not understand what they say, and for more than a few moments I miss the man I have come to rely on to tell me genocide stories.
Emmanuel is also a survivor of the genocide, and he has, for three years, been a translator for American students visiting Rwanda.
He has told his story countless times, to large groups of listeners, to other survivors, to college campuses in the United States, to cameras, to curious travelers, to men, to women.
When he tells his story he does not censor. “I saw my father’s murder; I hid every night in the bush; I shoved stones and intobo (little fruits that look like green grapes) in my nose to look Hutu; I was 9 years old.” He has worked for the Interdisciplinary Genocide Study Center in Rwanda and toured with students to genocide memorial and burial sites.
After I emerged from the Genocide Memorial Center with a wet face and infant impala legs, he was there.
“How often do you come here?” I asked, unsure how to comprehend the violent tunnels of history I had just walked through, but more unsure how to comprehend how a survivor could stand it.
“I come here often,” he answered. He was what I would consider levelheaded. “I like to come and feel close to the families. Here, I can do whatever I want. I can cry; I can look. This is a part of me and my history, so I come here often.”
Twenty-one days later Emmanuel is slamming his fist against the wall. He is what I would consider overwhelmingly affected.
Up until that point, he had been translating for me, just like every other day in Rwanda. The president of the cooperative, the woman who is giving me her testimony, does not flinch when she tells me her story through Emmanuel, a man, who sits to her right, close enough so knees are almost touching.
We learn that she was born in 1970 in the South, a part of the country the Tutsis had been forced into during the early years of segregation. In 1986, the Hutu government removed Tutsi students, including the president (I will not use her real name), from traditional high schools and placed them in classes that taught cooking, domestic work and “useless activities.”
Emmanuel tells me that in 1991, his father was tortured and accused of helping the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi army based in the Congo that had moved back into Rwanda to demand the end of discrimination.
Emmanuel translates with compassionate but calculated ease. He has heard these genocide testimonies before. But when she moves on, with milky eyes and a cemented strength, to the rape she suffered in 1994, Emmanuel is in new territory. He has not heard this sort of story before. He can no longer speak. His eyes drop suddenly to the floor, like magnets that latch to unknown sources of metal. His long fingers cradle his face, and he begins to cry.
It’s during this 20-minute time period of watching the drool suspend from his lower lip, of watching his mouth stretch into a scream, of listening to the only words I can understand — him yelling “those bastards, those bastards, those bastards” — of craning my neck to watch his fist make phantom dents in the brick wall, that I realize how unfamiliar this moment is.
In Rwanda, a majority of Rwandans still say “a man’s tears run within his stomach,” which suggests that emotions should be encased. In the United States, it’s the same. Emotion is weak and feminine and not a legitimate source for proof or argumentation. In Rwanda, rape survivors are marginalized. In the U.S., rape survivors are marginalized.
In both countries, rape is “a woman’s issue.”
‘More Than a Woman’s Issue’
Which is why Emmanuel’s reaction is so unfamiliar. And why it shows that rape is more than a woman’s issue.
In 1998, the testimonies of Rwandan women made rape an international law issue. The United Nations International Tribunal for Rwanda released the first definition of rape as a crime against humanity.
Yet, rape survivors are still marginalized and stigmatized — in both countries — discussed in superficial ways, tossed around in debates over victim-blaming and subjected to odd news coverage concerning politicians who believe things like the existence of “legitimate rape” and the spectacle of public sympathy for rapists at the end of the rape trial, like in Steubenville, Ohio.
What we do not read about: Rape has the dangerous and permanent ability to affect any person, woman or man, and it will probably affect both, dangerously and permanently.
Emmanuel taught me this. When I think back on the rhythmic smack, smack, smack of his fleshy fist pounding the cold brick wall, while the survivor and I sat with straight backs, holding hands and watching, I realize the true weight of the consequences of rape. I realize we are limiting our own understandings of tragedy and grief when we limit it to a woman’s experience only.
“The experience . . . made me want to fight for women in my country,” he told me six months later during a catching-up phone call.
This is when he told me it was the first time he’d heard from someone who had been raped. “I couldn’t believe how strong and beautiful she was. She is the only one to be brave and speak out. The picture of her was a picture of every woman in the genocide.”
He went on to say he thought many female survivors had been raped. “But they have no one to talk to. They have heavy experiences, but we do not talk about it. This is what I’m concerned about.”
“If anything happened to my mom or sisters . . . ,” he said. “What if my mom had been raped and died like that? These memories do not leave my mind.”
He added: “I don’t think men are ready to hear these stories and change.”
But he did.
Joanna Demkiewicz is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism. She is the co-founder and co-editor of The Riveter, a magazine that publishes long-form journalism by women for everyone.
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